Navigating uncertainty

What an uncertain year. In 2019 I left South-East Asia hoping that God would clear the path to move to a new region within a year. By the end of 2019 we felt certain about a new region and new ministry focus and began making concrete plans to be there mid-2020. Fast forward 18 months and we are still here in Australia, trapped by hard border closures for a still unknown length of time. The situation in our destination changes rapidly and those things that we thought we knew about where we were going or what we were going to do gets a little more fuzzy with each passing month. 

Early last year before we had any idea of the scale of this pandemic, I was interviewing Richard Chin the National Director for Australian Fellowship Evangelical Students. Of all the wisdom he shared with me, one thing really stood out: “Clarity, Clarity, Clarity. Clarity is the most loving thing you can do.”

As the full-scale of the pandemic and its impact on my life and the world around us, became apparent, the more I wanted to understand clarity. 

AFES is a complex organisation but it actually seemed pretty straightforward compared to my own multi-national cross cultural mission organisation. With missionaries being sent from anywhere to everywhere, from every continent often into risky and unpredictable situations with rapidly changing social, economic and political contexts.

Even without COVID and the extreme uncertainty it brought, our lives in cross-cultural organisations are pretty uncertain. As I reflected not just on my own situation of stuckness, but on my whole organisation, on the people we had been leading, the people we had been led by I kept wondering: Do we all crave certainty? And what as leaders should we do with that uncertainty. 

In a chapter titled “Leadership and ambiguity”, James Plueddemann discusses the research on cultural differences in uncertainty avoidance or tolerance for ambiguity. He doesn’t just discuss the cultural differences in tolerance for ambiguity and the way those differences can lead to misunderstandings. He takes it one step further and looks at uncertainty avoidance at the organisational level and says:

“Few things reflect the cultural value of avoiding uncertainty as much as an organizational structure. If an organization has no fear of uncertainty there is little need for structure, while organizations with little tolerance for ambiguity are highly organized. The challenge arises when mission societies or denominations seek to become truly multinational resulting in partnerships between organizations that exhibit both high and low uncertainty avoidance cultures. Suddenly the one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. As world missions move from “everywhere to everywhere”, organizational cultures are likely to become more decentralized and ambiguous.” (Leading Across Cultures)

Uncertainty has fascinated not just missiologists and anthropologists but business schools and organisational researchers for some time. VUCA is an acronym often thrown around in discussions about uncertainty. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. This originally came from the military as a way to describe the global world order that was emerging in the post-cold-war period. 9/11 and other events gave it currency. 

It was a convenient way to package all that was unknown or disturbing.

When we look at the impact of COVID, it has a global scale that is unparalleled but this kind of upheaval and uncertainty is a long-term reality for so many of the contexts in which we minister. 

Glenda Eoyang, founder of The Human Systems Dynamics Institute, points out that describing situations as VUCA is really an American perception of a situation.

It doesn’t adequately apply to societies where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are normal aspects of the world. It is culturally biased in that it attempts to describe a deviation and highlights that western discomfort with ambiguity that Plueddemann was talking about, a discomfort with all those four words. Eoyang worries about the use of VUCA along with phrases like ‘future proofing’ or ‘new normal’ and says “The future is uncertain and uncertainty carries risk. Any notion that the future can be made risk free is a delusion of power and privilege.” (https://www.peoplematters.in/article/life-at-work/finding-simplicity-in-chaos-beyond-vuca-25159

It got me thinking about an alternative to decrying the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity, and the ambiguity. Rather than feeling frustrated by uncertainty could I actually learn to appreciate it, embrace it and help those I lead do the same?

I have realised that tolerance for ambiguity is more than just something I need to understand in order to work cross-culturally but that two things would help me as I lead in the face of uncertainty in a complex and ambiguous organisation:

Academics at QUT did research into Tolerance of Ambiguity in the workplace and found that high levels of it contributed positively to job performance, decision making, creativity, critical thinking, risk acceptance, job satisfaction, organisational commitment and health and wellbeing. They focus on individual personality traits and how they might be developed in workers who have a naturally low tolerance but they do highlight the benefits to organisations that have more employees with these traits. We have so much to learn from cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity and there is a wonderful advantage in cross-cultural organisations where those cultures and cultural values are present, we just need to listen to them. 

We also have so much work to do in understanding how to provide clarity in the face of uncertainty Andy Stanley, mega church pastor and leadership guru, devotes a large part of his book, Next Generation Leader to the need for clarity. He says that uncertainty underscores the need for both leadership and the need for clarity. “The goal of leadership is not to eradicate uncertainty but rather to navigate it.”

What is clarity?

A more clear approach is to create processes by which people can be known or understood, that give them confidence they will be known, that leaders will take time to get to know their backgrounds, gifts, needs and hopes and that those things will inform decisions.

As Susan Kahn says “Leaders have an important role to play in managing the fears and anxieties of those who work for us. Ideally, leaders offer us a bounded space in which to work.” (Bounce Back: How to fail fast and be resilient at work)

It’s not attempting to control every variable or eliminate uncertainty. But it is giving people confidence that someone is there who knows how to navigate the uncertainty or sometimes just prepared to be present in the uncertainty with them.

Four things I’m trying to cultivate as I navigate uncertainty:

Curiosity (About people, about cultures, about situations)

I think getting to know how people and cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity approach different situations is helping me grow my own tolerance, and could help incorporate more flexibility in our complex and decentralized organization. Part of creating a bounded space should include getting to know people’s stories, their hopes their fears, their preferences then you can help them navigate what is going on around them. So much frustration and burnout in missions comes from unmet expectations, but if I don’t know what they are, I can’t help people on the journey whether towards those expectations to towards finding better ones. 

Knowledge (By which I mean Knowing what I don’t know)

Perhaps more important than doing all the research and being certain about the best course of action is knowing what things I can’t be certain of, knowing that things will change and evolve expecting the unexpected but having a clear idea of how you will figure out the way forward and what resources you have to support you.I also think there is a fundamental biblical truth here. People often quote Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” People quote this with good intentions, to reassure people that things will work out. But maybe it wasn’t designed to be an inspirational post on Instagram. God’s promises were big vague promises. Again and again in the bible we see people trusting in the God who reveals himself rather than a particular plan or a promise of prosperity. We see his people confident that whatever the outcome God will be glorified. 

I think a more helpful passage is probably 1 Corinthians 13. This is probably a passage that is overused in relation to romantic relationships and underused for leadership or organisational matters. What is it that makes a difference in the face of uncertainty? Not necessarily putting all the best brains in the room and trying to figure out the solution but knowing that we do not know. Knowing that this present reality is just a dim reflection of Gods kingdom, of his bigger and more perfect plan for our redemption and that the only way to navigate it all is with love. 

Love

Love for the people, countries and cultures I am serving. Love for the people I am serving with. Love will enable me to seek to understand them, to work towards clarity, to trust God even in the midst of chaos. 

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an Italian psychiatrist turned management professor, has been railing against the war-like language and celebration of leaders he has seen emerge in the pandemic. He proposes instead that what people most need is holding. And here is my caveat about vision. He says chaos and anxiety feed leaderism – a kind of toxic obsession with leaders and their vision. Leaderism needs a threat to rail against. He borrows the phrase holding from child development theory (Good caretakers do not shelter children from distress and turns of fate. But they buffer children enough that they can process distress, and find words to name their experiences, and ways to manage it.) He says the role of leaders and managers is not just to influence people but to hold them both on an institutional and personal level:

“When I ask managers to reflect a bit more on the leaders whose visions they find most compelling and enduring, they usually realize that none of those leaders started from a vision or stopped there. Instead the leader started with a sincere concern for a group of people, and as they held those people and their concerns, a vision emerged. They then held people through the change it took to realize that vision, together. Their vision may be how we remember leaders because it can hold us captive. But it is their hold that truly sets us free.” (https://hbr.org/2020/04/the-psychology-behind-effective-crisis-leadership)

I think that is so much more helpful as we navigate both the extreme uncertainty of covid but also the ongoing reality of working in an ambiguous and complex world. For people to know there are leaders to hold them should make the whole organisation more able to take risks and tolerate ambiguity. This is a really tangible demonstration of 1 Corinthians 13 love. 

The kind of institutional holding that Petriglieri talks about supports people through crises in ways that build their resilience. It’s also building resilient systems. Systems that don’t need to be changed every time something changes, that don’t rely on particular people but that spread and multiply knowledge rather than concentrate it in the hands of a few

The need for clarity is becoming even more necessary with younger workers. Richard Chin’s deputy, Tony, told me, young people expect more structure and process and feel unloved if they don’t get it. This resonated so strongly with my own experiences with interns, short termers and teams. I heard many stories from other leaders also grappling with young workers frustration at unmet expectations. This is the generation that want to read a review or watch a vlog to see what something is like before they commit to anything. These things give the illusion of predictability. But when their experience is not like the cropped and filtered instagram image there is inevitably frustration. I’ve realised they are chasing certainty, an experience that looks exactly like they were sold, rather than being taught to be comfortable in the ambiguity, clear about their hopes but not certain about what the journey will look like. There is a lot of work to do to figure out how to help people be comfortable with the ambiguity involved in serving cross-culturally. Things will change and we will be changed by them. 

In Leading Across Cultures, Plueddemann has this beautiful description of a pilgrim leader: “Pilgrims have a goal and a sense of direction, but they realize that the path often leads through rugged mountains and foggy swamps, bringing unexpected twist and turns. Pilgrims tolerate ambiguity and focus on the unfolding serendipitous opportunities that God brings into view.” As I look into the future that is so unclear, I want to encourage us all to aspire to be that kind of pilgrim leader. With a concern for God’s people and clear on why we keep pushing forward but grateful for the opportunities that even COVID has brought to serve God right where we are. Let’s be prayerful that we will be better able to help others navigate similar uncertainty along the way. 

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